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Election 2020

How election results get certified

Attempts to contest the outcome of the election haven’t amounted to much, but now progress relies on the process of certifying the results.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Even though the winner of an American election usually gets announced soon after the vote happens, the result is never actually official on Election Day. It’s not even official once the media makes their result projections, as happened last week. Instead, election results actually become real when state and local election authorities make sure that every valid vote was counted and formally certify them.

While President Donald Trump continues to dispute the election—he’s launched over a dozen legal efforts to prove fraud, challenge counts, and delay certification—every lawsuit has effectively failed so far. 

Election officials appointed by the Trump administration say the president’s claims are dangerous and lack any credibility. Every state says there is no evidence of fraud, and federal and local election officials of both parties released a joint statement to say exactly that. As it has been since he started making accusations years ago, the president’s claims about election fraud are utterly empty. 

What does certifying results really mean? The process is the same this year as it’s been any previous year. Election officials canvass results by tabulating and verifying the outcome across their states. They look at provisional ballots, and those which were challenged according to state and sometimes even county laws. After checking them over, the results are certified: the formal process in which the outcome is made official. The exact method varies state to state, but generally a secretary of state or a state board of elections will meet after counting is concluded and sign a certification of the results.

Counting may have taken longer this year because the pandemic dramatically increased the number of mail-in ballots, but the only meaningful difference is that the sitting president is carrying on an unprecedented attack on the results. Trump’s legal challenges and recount requests could theoretically alter the certification timeline, but courts have been throwing out the campaign’s efforts so far because of a lack of evidence.

That means the next couple of weeks will feature a cascade of certifications, and each will move the overall process forward. Although partisan state and local officials could theoretically block certification or appoint their own electors, there is slim to no sign that anyone currently plans to do that. In Georgia, that’s resulted in Trump lashing out at elected Republican officials unwilling to echo his lies. In Ohio, the Republican governor who co-chaired Trump’s reelection campaign acknowledged former vice president Joe Biden’s win and Trump immediately attacked him on Twitter. 

Here’s what happens next in the states that have played a key role in the presidential election:

  • Georgia’s certification deadline is November 20. 
  • Pennsylvania counties must submit certification by November 23. 
  • Michigan’s certification deadline is November 23.
  • Nevada’s certification deadline is November 24. 
  • Arizona’s certification deadline is November 30.
  • Wisconsin’s certification deadline is December 1.

Biden is winning in all of those states.

On December 14, the Electoral College casts its votes and then the states are done. The election then finally moves into federal hands: two months after Election Day, Congress formally elects the next president on January 6 when it counts electoral votes in a joint session.

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